Fullerene / Buckyball

Can mathematics aid chemistry?

Key stage: 3
Subjects: mathematics, chemistry, engineering, architecture


In this activity you travel in time to 1985 when radio astronomers and chemists were duelling with the shape of the molecule of a new compound of carbon found in outer space. Your work will recreate achievements of the 1996 Nobel Prize Laureates!

This activity intends to give learners the opportunity to explore 3d shapes and place 3d skills in the context of the demands of architecture, engineering and scientific advancement. It explores purely mathematical concepts also allowing for a natural and accurate positioning of mathematics as a tool to the progress of other sciences (in this case chemistry) and to solve problems in engineering (like folding of airbags in cars, telescopes, solar panels, surgical implants). The rich and real context allows pupils to explore the topics further as out of the classroom investigations.

The activities proposed allow the teacher to work on a variety of frameworks:

  • Series of whole-class sessions with the option of pulling out some activities for after school clubs or to stretch the gifted and talented cohort
  • Whole day activity (e.g. STEM day, Activity week)
  • After school clubs in technology, mathematics, origami, etc.

Subject links

M in STEM: chemistry, engineering, architecture, medicine, nanotechnology, weather forecasting, sculpture, paper folding technology

Mathematics: angle, tessellation, algebra, counting of faces, edges and vertices of 3d shapes leading into Euler's formula, Platonic solids, Archimedean solids.

Learning approaches: kinaesthetic activities, team work, spatial awareness, investigation.

How does it go?

In this activity learners explore 3d shapes, investigating a relationship between the number of vertices, edges and faces of shapes (Euler's formula).

Pupils build:

  • dodecahedron and a football using paper folding
  • a ‘ball' using pentagons and hexagons only
  • polyhedra built with Polydron

Pupils investigate:

  • uses of the Euler's formula to define the shape of a ‘new' carbon compound
  • ways of counting vertices, edges and faces of 3d shapes systematically

Pupils are asked to research:

  • geodesic domes
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • Platonic and Archimedean solids
  • uses of paper folding in industry and science: airbag folding, Eyeglass telescope, etc
  • mathematically interesting buildings in the neighbourhood
    carbon nanotubes

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